Israeli actions over the past month are to be evaluated by a special United Nations task force.

If we take military action against Iraq over the coming months, as I hope, the United States will likewise face such an evaluation by the international community — especially those in "the chattering class" of media punditry.

Such examinations of democracies when they take action against terrorism need to move beyond the mere question: "What happened?" They need to ask: "What could have happened?"

Asking only the first question would invariably give a misleading answer. Only by asking both questions can the United Nations and world community get a complete answer.

And without that larger perspective, the new guiding principle of our era — namely, pre-emption — cannot take hold.

Acts of terrorism against civilians — whether by homicide bombers against Israelis, or by genocidal regimes such as Saddam Hussein's against Americans — are too horrendous to wait until they're launched. Vigorous action is needed before such dastardly crimes are perpetuated. Thus the need for a broad perspective when appraising the actions that we democracies must take against terrorist organizations or states.

Last Monday, Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, announced that a team under Martti Ahtisaari will investigate Israeli actions in the Jenin refugee camp, as mandated in the unanimous U.N. Security Council Resolution 1405.

For 20-plus years I've known Martti Ahtisaari to be a fair and wise man. I first realized this when we were colleagues at the United Nations in the early 1980s, and later when he became president of Finland. Recently, we spent days together in London for the board meeting of the International Crisis Group, which Martti chairs.

Consequently, I know that if the Ahtisaari panel asks the right questions, it will give a fair report. Contrary to the hysteria in our media, and howls from European salons, the panel might even find that Israel acted prudently, perhaps even nobly, in Jenin. Or maybe not.

Regardless, the Ahtisaari panel's investigation must go beyond what happened to what might have happened. So the team must ask:

— What terrorist acts against Israel were being planned in Jenin? 

— What Palestinian youth in Jenin were preparing to launch homicide bombings against Israelis? 

— What Palestinian leaders in Jenin were purchasing explosives, belts and other paraphernalia to blow up innocent Jews? 

These are the new types of questions needed in our new age.

While "self-determination" marked the nub of U.S. foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s, "unilateral surrender" in the 1940s and "containment" in the decades since, "pre-emption" became our foreign policy guidepost after Sept. 11.

When free people are threatened by terrorists willing themselves to die in order to assault civilians with explosives, or even use weapons of mass destruction, past ways no longer suffice.

During the twin struggles of the 20th century, against Nazism and communism, aggressors had a known address. However vile they were, those aggressors were presumed to be rational, and seeking to live.

No such assumptions hold any longer.

We probably won't know which terrorist group attacks us in the future, let alone its address. Terrorists act without any trace of rationality or regard for self-preservation. They'd prefer to perish, finding their joy with all those virgins in the afterworld as they are celebrated as martyrs in this one.

Free societies simply cannot afford to wait until terrorist groups or regimes use explosives — or chemical, biological or nuclear weapons — against us, before we react. In a fundamental sense, we must react even before they act.

Hence the need for "pre-emption." And hence the need for the Ahtisaari team to expand the scope of its report back to the United Nations by asking the right questions.

Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of TechCentralStation

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